© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2020

Almost Unheard Of: Where to From Here.

Asha Abdi
Almost unheard of  3
Asha Abdi  Asha Abdi

Almost Unheard Of is a fortnightly long-form series, delving into the experience's refugees and/or migrants have with the media.

In the last installment of Almost Unheard Of, Asha Abdi talked to Bilal Nasier about his and his family’s experience with the media upon arriving in New Zealand in 1999.   

For the last story in this series, we look to those within the media industry working to create positive change.  

 

The way people from refugee and migrant communities are reported on in New Zealand media hurts people. It's as simple as that. Inaccurate reporting in any matter is already detrimental, but when the only information about these communities, that are widely accessible is negativethe way they’re seen by the wider community takes a negative turn.

Mohamed Hassan is a journalist and poet. These days he works primarily in London for Middle East Eye, a digital news agency, but spent most of his career working in New Zealand. His work includes the Radio New Zealand podcast, Public Enemy, and The Guest House. 

News Headlines in NZ.
News Headlines in NZ. Asha Abdi.

For Mohamed, changing the popular narrative about Muslim migrants and refugees, not only nationally, but globally, was personal for him as a member of the Muslim community in New Zealand.  

“I grew up in the Muslim community here and I saw the way negative media coverage was affecting our community and the way we were existing and the way that it was correlating with angry attacks, people swearing at you, giving you dirty looks and we could see that first hand on the ground level.”
Mohamed Hassan

The headlines above are only the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper issue regarding media coverage in New Zealand. It creates a deep mistrust towards the media  

“A lot of Muslims deeply mistrusted the media and a lot of people believe the media was purposely trying to skew their image,” Mohamed said.   

Mohamed believes that media coverage surrounding Muslims in New Zealand wasn’t as constructive as it could have been. He makes it clear he believes that New Zealand media is in no way alone in this either.  

I think this has been a recurring theme over the last 20 years, especially since the attacks on 9/11. I think the way Muslim communities were seen in the United States media, made its way over to New Zealand and there were a lot of stories that I, as a young journalist and someone that entered the media specifically to try and counter this narrative and to try and create more constructive coverage, was very critical of. 

Once Mohamed started working in journalism, he realised that this isn’t necessarily the case. New Zealand media isn’t intentionally trying to portray an entire community negatively. It was a result of an absolute lack of representation in the newsroom regarding the people they’re writing about.   

“There's no representation of Muslims within the media industry and there's also a lot of ignorance. So, when a reporter goes up to a story and they have personal biases, as everyone else does, but when there isn’t anybody there to challenge these biases, then no grand narratives that end up in people's homes when they watch TV or read the news will ever get challenged. 

One story stood out to him. It irked him a lot. It was a 60 Minutes story about 10, maybe 15 years ago, about Mongrel Mob members in prison that were converting to Islam.  

It was splashed about like this exclusive that 60 Minutes had and it was presented as this really shocking and alarming story about these really dangerous gang members that were also converting to Islam behind bars and that this was something that everyone in New Zealand needed to be aware of." 

Gang members, Islam, and prison. Mohamed said it was kind of the perfect storm in terms of problematic and alarmist reporting.  

It ticked a bunch of different boxes where you have problematic coverage of Maori communities in the media, you have the alarmist ways that gangs are often covered and you also have Muslims and it was all in prison so it was kind of the perfect storm. But those were the kinds of stories that I really thought needed to desperately to change,” Mohamed said. 

“While I think in NZ, we have come a long way to try and counter that, there's still also a long way to go.” 
Mohamed Hassan.

These kinds of stories have changed quite drastically the past year. This is most likely due to the Christchurch Mosque attacks. Stories about minorities, especially Muslims in New Zealand, have come under scrutiny 

 After the Christchurch Mosque Attacks, there was almost this magnifying glass put on the Muslim community in New Zealand. 

Jumayah Jones, former publication and media secretary at Al-Noor Mosque, also noticed this change.  

Jumayah Jones.
Former Publication and Media Secretary Jumayah Jones. Supplied.

One recent experience with New Zealand media stuck with her. Jumayah expected to be contacted by various media outlets in the lead up to the one-year anniversary of the attacks so when she got a phone call from a journalist in Dunedin, she was more than willing to talk.  

“Everyone was being contacted by the media at the time and this journalist was interviewing Muslims in Dunedin. So, the people they interviewed said they were against the idea of a one-year memorial service. So, when I was asked about that -  if the mosque was involved in the memorial service - I said no because it’s not an Islamic thing, but we understand the desire to have one. 

“But the headline I read the next day said Muslims in Christchurch were against the service. A level of understanding was missing there,” Jumayah said, somewhat frustrated at the miscommunication. 

This experience was entirely different from another interview she did shortly after the attacks last year. A story for the New Zealand Herald called “Christchurch mosque shootings: Inside Al Noor's area for women” by Lana Hart, who she later worked with on a Radio New Zealand podcast.

“She was sincere in her intention to let our voices be heard.”
Jumayah Jones.

Throughout our conversation, Jumayah continuously stressed the importance of the words journalists use. That the truth is the most important thing for a journalist but in order to understand the whole truth, you need to understand the background of the person you’re speaking to.  

 

“Your intention has to be to find the facts, not to find comments to prove your opinion. Words are so important.”
Jumayah Jones.

Jumayah was very insistent about the importance of wording in stories. She gave me this example: When one person in the Muslim community does something bad, race and religion are used as a descriptor. But when a Muslim person has done something good, they’re just a good person.  

Regarding this critique, The Press editor Kamala Hayman acknowledged The Press has been guilty of this in the past.  

I know The Press has been guilty of this in the past but I hope that in recent years we have not described individuals by their race, ethnicity, skin colour, religion, sexual orientation, etc unless it is pertinent to the story. We don't always get it right, but it is something we talk about and educate younger journalists about.

“I do believe the horror of March 15 made us much more keenly aware of our failings. We had overlooked the threat from white supremacism while stoking fears regarding Islamic terrorism in the years post-9/11. Likewise, I do think there has been a greater awareness of the diversity of reasons for wearing a hijab,” Kamala said. 

 

After the Christchurch Mosque attacks, Mohamed Hassan travelled back to New Zealand from Turkey to cover it. Like Jumayah, Mohamed noticed a massive change in how Muslim centered stories were being covered in New Zealand media.  

“As someone who has spent most of their career covering Muslim stories and trying to change the negative perception that often is represented in the media regarding Muslims and the Muslim community in New Zealand, it was kind of night and day," Mohamed said.

Seeing reporters on the news wearing hijab and seeing Muslim people being invited to speak on shows like The Project wasn’t something that seemed likely to happen in Mohamed's eyes. 

“I think that was something that was very significant and I know as a member of the Muslim community, for a lot of other Muslims in New Zealand it was very refreshing to see ourselves speaking for ourselves in the media and I think for a long time that wasn’t the case."
Mohamed Hassan.

Associate Editor at The Indian News and Editor at Multicultural Times, Gaurav Sharma moved to Christchurch in 2014 to find a huge vacuum in local media in regard to reporting on migrant and refugee communities. He found that next to no outlets were reporting on these communities and if there was any coverage, he found them to be negative. This is one of the reasons he co-founded the Multicultural Times. 

He has many stories to tell about the communities he’s reported on throughout his career.  

The West African community in New Zealand organises a function every year honouring local heroes. Gaurav went to cover it, only to write a small piece. He didn’t think it was a big deal. The article was only about three paragraphs long but after the story was published, the president of the association hugged him and asked him to be an honourary member. 

After asking why, the president of the association said: "weve been organising this event for about 20 years and you're the first to write about us and acknowledge our existence".  

 “I felt this was a sad commentary on the press in New Zealand,” Gaurav said.  

“If you don’t report about people, you are in fact making them invisible. If I'm walking across the road and you don’t acknowledge my existence, I am invisible. So, when the media doesn't report on you at all, for them, you are invisible.”
Gaurav Sharma.

Despite there having been a positive shift regarding the coverage of migrant communities in Christchurch, it's important to mention that in 2018, eight people were killed after a bomb detonated near a major university in Kabul while students were waiting to take an exam. The Afghan community in Christchurch – although thousands of kilometers away - were struck hard. The Afghan community held a candlelight vigil at the Cathedral Square, where people prayed and shared their thoughts. 

No media outlets were there. This is just an example of the "invisibility" Gaurav is speaking of. 

candlelight vigil after Kabul Attack in Cathedral Square.
Candlelight vigil after Kabul Attack in Cathedral Square. Asha Abdi.

Associate professor of media and communications at the University of Canterbury, Donald Matheson said news media in New Zealand certainly is not inclusive enough, although the direction the industry is heading towards is positive.   

“We still have a long way to go, whether it’s about employing people from a range of backgrounds or about giving people from a range of backgrounds access to public discussion or about avoiding stereotypes,” Donald said.  

  

Mohamed Hassan said that while the way New Zealand media reports on refugee matters is incredibly different from the way Australia does, New Zealand media is not immune to potentially falling into those same traps.   

  

“If we’re not careful, we’ll fall into this trap where we end up politicising people's identities, which happens a lot to refugees in particular. We need to recognise that these stories don’t appear in a vacuum."
Mohamed Hassan.

“As journalists, we often take pride when our stories have positive effects but the same is also true with stories that aren’t covered well. They do, and often have negative impacts on people's lives,” Mohamed said. 

Mohamed goes on to mention an incident in 2014, when former Prime Minister John Key spoke to the media about the idea of “jihadi brides”, suggesting Kiwi-Muslims in New Zealand were joining ISIS.   

“New Zealand media at the time very uncritically went with the words of the Prime Minister, which later turned out to be untrue and this impacted the very small Muslim community in a very big way. This story essentially made Muslim women, particularly those who wear a hijab, a target of people's anxiety and fear,” Mohamed said.  

During that period, The Islamic Women's Council documented a rise in anti-Muslim attacks against Muslim women. 

Six years later, change is coming slowly and despite how slow it may feel, positive change is happening and the voices that are almost unheard of, are getting louder.